You don’t often go to Benefits Street and have a good cry. Sure, this second series has been softer and warmer after the tabloid-fuelled hijinx of series one, of course. But tonight was something else. Tonight the emotions ran as high as it is possible to imagine with the death of Reagan.
In fact, I’d be surprised if there will be a sadder or more touching moment of television this year.
Reagan was the teenage son of Tilery Estate stalwart Julie Young, who had been left seriously disabled following a heart attack when he was a baby 15 years ago. Well, to be precise, he had his heart attack on January 27, 2000 at twenty past ten in the morning. Julie of course, has that precise moment etched on her heart and in her head because she has been her son’s carer ever since.
And he died in tonight’s instalment in sequences that had me choking. And I very rarely do that in front of the TV.
It was an exquisitely structured piece of television, dealing first with Christmas on the Tilery Estate and all the hardships as well as fun that the time of year brings. One of the high points was the community arranging a visit from from some real-life reindeer so Julie could give her son a go on a sleigh, something she had always wanted to do.
That was pretty moving in itself, especially when Julie told us that every Christmas has been a milestone for her son given his early prognosis. And he loved the reindeer.
Christmas, Julie explained, has always been sad because he has never been able to buy Reagan ”bikes and stuff”. There was even a comic moment when Julie’s friend Sue tried to get Jeremy Kyle to do something for Reagan’s Christmas – and made a mess of her call to ITV.
But after the holidays, the bombshell. We were told that young Reagan, who had been experiencing breathing difficulties, had died, leaving Julie and her neighbours in shock.
It was a skillfully-handled piece of television. This series had been excellent at conveying the warmth and community spirit of the residents without sentimentalising them. But the death of Reagan needed just a few images – his white coffin, the horse-drawn hearse, the pain and grief etched on the faces of his family, friends and neighbours.
And all played out to a slow moving rendition of Whenever I Saw your Face, the song that Julie always sang to her son throughout the series.
And then there was the interview with Julie afterwards.
“I’m lost,” she said looking so desperately sad and bereft you just wanted to give her a hug. “I just want Reagan back.”
But there was a coming back to reality as she faced the need to help her younger son Cameron deal with the death of his brother and of course other more mundane problems. With Reagan’s death his room was now designated spare – and was so subject to the dreaded (so-called) bedroom tax. As we left her we didn’t know if she was going to be able to stay on the estate.
Channel 4 say that there is no decision yet on whether there will be a Benefits Street series 3, but this beautiful, moving, sad episode made me yearn for another. And one that didn’t introduce us to a new set of characters but visited the same people a year on.
Julie has set up a charity to raise money for the hospital where Reagan was treated. To donate click here